Do we really need another adaptation of “Little Women?” Greta Gerwig’s Little Women hashad this question lobbied at it due to the countless times the century-old book had been adapted to the screen. It’s an absurd question when you consider why a movie has to validate its existence in the first place. However, to entertain the question is to also come to understand the fragmented structure with which Gerwig tells the story, how she adds her own imprint on the material creating this metatextual commentary about her own relationship to the material and connecting that to her career in the film industry. Gerwig’s Little Women not only validates itself, but it also shuts down those critics who posited the question in the first place.
This is a film about the female artist and the validity of their perspective in a world dominated by the male voice, but it also manages to connect these ideas to that of memory, and how the way we frame memories informs our perspective as we age. By using a flashback structure in order to create this fragmented treatise on memory, Gerwig is able to connect the story to her memories of these sisters as she herself was growing up, able to thoughtfully examine her own history through her filmmaking, able to create something that feels both personal and universal.
What’s fascinating about this film is that while it does play with time through the non-linearity in its structure, the film takes on the perspective of Jo March becoming the narrator of the film through the story she eventually writes about her adolescence. Thus through this meta-narrative approach Gerwig (and by extension her surrogate Jo) is able to play with audience expectations as the intersecting events unfold. We begin this story with Jo March as an adult, living on her own in New York as she teaches at a boarding school and writes pulpy, populist stories in order to make some money. Then we eventually check in on her sisters, Amy, Meg, and Beth. Amy is off in Paris pursuing her artistic ambitions as a painter, while Meg is a financially strapped housewife and Beth is still at home, struggling with a sickness. As we get to explore these girls through flashback we come to get a feel for their personalities and juxtapositions with one another, the film soars with vibrancy and vitality, and as we see Jo and her sisters apart from each other as adults, Gerwig is able to capture the essence of our own reminiscence for simpler times.
Saoirse Ronan as Jo is a firecracker. The second oldest of the 4 sisters, she is unpredictable and fiery with a fierce conviction melded with the tender humanity of somebody who knows what she wants, yet she has to figure out what she is willing to compromise in order to attain those goals, and whether she can live with those compromises. Jo gives a speech in the third act, her voice filled with a desperate plea, as she spills her words about how she is sick of being told how love is all a woman is fit for. But then she caps it all off by saying, almost as if she’s defeated, that she is so lonely. The vulnerability spilling out of this character at this moment will break your heart, as Ronan’s performance breaks through the barrier of the screen and attaches itself to your consciousness. It is a moment wrapped in a performance that feels cracked and detailed with experience.
Florence Pugh’s Amy, the youngest of the sisters, is a breakthrough, as Gerwig gives this character respectability and importance that other adaptations skimped on. Thought of as the least liked sister among fans, Florence Pugh’s performance is a revelation, with great writing to match her wit. Amy is a little selfish and materialistic, and yet she is also given moments that show us how cognizant she is of her place within this family and within a world where women are second class citizens. In one scene she will do something that feels irredeemable, and then two scenes later we’ll fall back in love with her. While she may be perceived to be naïve, Amy has this dialogue in regard to the financial transaction that is marriage and how little agency the woman has in this proposition in order to justify why she has to “marry rich,”. The sharp dialogue matched with Pugh’s demeanor creates this biting truth that allows us to view Amy in a new light.
Meg, played by Emma Watson with grace and elegance, is the oldest of the sisters, and the first to marry, and it is through Meg that the film is able to explore domesticity, and the validity of a woman’s ambitions to marry and be a wife. There is an equality that ranges from sister to sister, as the film argues for the validity and importance of their individual perspectives. As Meg has to make Jo understand before her marriage, just because her dreams are that of marriage, motherhood and domesticity don’t mean that they are less important or less valid than Jo’s dreams of artistic expression.
Meg is a young woman who fancies being fancy, who ends up marrying somebody who can’t indulge Meg in her desire for material things. Meg buying fabric for a dress at the beginning of the film creates friction between her and her husband, as they may not be able to afford winter coats for the children or the husband. And just like with every other thread within the film, the way Gerwig handles this relationship is thoughtful and poignant in the way she tackles the complexity of these characters and the love they feel for one another.
Then we arrive at Beth, played with subtle grace by Eliza Scanlan. The second youngest, she is happy being at home and playing piano for her sisters. She doesn’t need to share her art with the world and her greatest ambition seems to be to just be with her family. Beth becomes sick in both the flashbacks and the present, and the way Gerwig matches the past with the present and reconfigures the narrative to juxtapose these two time periods is brilliant and a little heartbreaking.
Her illness is what brings Meg and Jo back home, and Beth pleas with them not to inform Amy because she doesn’t want Amy to put her own ambitions on hold, because that’s just who Beth is. Beth is the heart of the film, filling the screen with a tender warmth, who’s relationship to the sisters is pronounced and specific, but who’s own journey informs the perspective of her sisters A scene on the beach between Beth and Jo will reach into your eyes and extrapolate the tears all by itself, as Beth, in her own way, pushes Jo in the direction of writing about her own life. It is gracious and beautiful and profound.
Laura Dern plays the mother of these girls with a quiet strength, trying to raise four girls with a husband at war. There is just a genuine kind of decency and kindness to the character that feels vital to a 2019 context where the world feels cold and inhumane a lot of the time. Laura Dern is a reminder that people like this exist, even if only in the movies.
Meryl Streep is fantastic in her extended cameo as Aunt March, a rich woman who’s independent but also harps about the importance of marrying well. And then we arrive at Timothee Chalamet who plays Lauri, the neighbor to the March sisters, who lives with an uncle played affably by Chris Cooper. While the March sisters and their mother aren’t well of in terms of finance, their home is filled with warmth and love, and they are able to spread that warmth to the neighboring house, where Lauri and his uncle are rich, but the house felt empty before Jo and her sisters arrived in their lives.
Watching Greta Gerwig deconstruct and reconstruct the text in order to fit within the puzzle of her own relationship with the text was thrilling, filled with urgency in its placement within a 2019 culture that still has a hierarchy on the kinds of stories that hold value. Unfortunately, the relevancy of stories like Little Women are still being questioned because they still aren’t looked at as a kind of story that is to be respected. This book has been adapted multiple times before, but instead of viewing this through the same lens we would view something like Hamlet, that doesn’t need to justify the relevance of its adaptations, we instead decided to question whether Greta Gerwig’s Little Women deserves to exist.
What is so brilliant about this specific adaptation is that Gerwig was aware of the questions that would be lobbed her way, and she built her answer into the text, as Jo March is looking to sell her breakthrough novel to a male publisher who doesn’t understand this kind of story, Gerwig decides to remove the barrier between audience and movie, in turn making the audience complicit in the decisions Jo is told to make, and Gerwig makes us question why our perspective on storytelling is so limited, specifically when it comes to the stories being told by women. Little Women is truly a special film; thoughtful in its perspective, precise in its construction. Enveloped in warmth, brimming with vitality.
Review: Little Women (2019)
Little Women is truly a special film; thoughtful in its perspective, precise in its construction. Enveloped in warmth, brimming with vitality.